“What is consciousness if you cannot poke it with your finger?”
During a moment of classroom epiphany in 2004, Erin, a precocious honors student at James Madison University, spontaneously put her finger on science’s most perplexing question and why science was loath to take the bait.
For all their erudition, scientists are not unlike the 7-year-old who stumbles upon a toad in her path and succumbs to the temptation to poke the creature to learn something about it in the process. Indeed, experimental physics is a formalized way of poking things and evaluating the responses. In the abstract, an experiment requires three essential ingredients: energy, object and detector. Energy is directed at the object, some fraction strikes the detector, and something is gleaned about the object from the pattern of transmitted or returned energy. Consider a familiar example: in utero ultrasound of an unborn fetus.
Ernest Rutherford’s iconic atom-probing investigations of 1911 were vintage “poke-and-watch” experiments. When Rutherford hurled minuscule “alpha” particles at presumably solid gold foil, most passed through unimpeded. But when a rare alpha bounced back, an astounded Rutherford mused, “It was as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you!” He concluded that atoms, the building blocks of matter, are more than 99.9-percent emptiness.
The material world of Rutherford’s investigation has remained the principal domain of science since the 17th century, when French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596 to 1650) partitioned the cosmos into distinct magisteria: the res extensa (i.e., matter) and the res cogitans (i.e., mind). Rendered asunder, philosophy diverged. Natural philosophy — modern-day science — claimed matter as its domain. Philosophy claimed mind. An uneasy truce prevailed, seeding mistrust between reason, the principal tool of science, and intuition, that of religion.
The “Galileo affair” of 1616 to 1633 deepened that mistrust, driving a wedge between science and faith that persists to this day. Summoned before the Inquisition at nearly 70 years of age, the once-mighty Galileo was reduced to a shell and barely survived. His crime: the promotion of Copernicanism.
“Of all discoveries and opinions,” observed Goethe, “none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus.” By shifting from a geocentric cosmological perspective to a heliocentric one, Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer and cleric, literally made the earth move. The publication of Copernicus’s masterpiece, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), launched a revolution in cosmology that dislodged humans from the center of the cosmos and exploded the size of the known universe. Big Bang cosmology and enthralling deep-space images from the Hubble Space Telescope are but modern aftershocks of the seismic paradigm shift that Copernicus unleashed five centuries ago.
“[Darwinism],” observed Freud, “was the second … blow to human narcissism.” Prior to Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), humans sat atop a pinnacle of divine creation. Origin and its sequel, The Descent of Man (1871), displaced humans from that seat of high honor, relegating us to one branch of a “tree of life,” no different in kind from other living organisms, only in degree.
Science and religion — long separated — divorced after Darwin. The back-to-back punches thrown by Copernicus and Darwin disfigured the human face in the mirror of self-perception. Are we not what we thought we were, the focus of the physical and biological universes? The message from science is strangely dissonant to that of religion, which proclaims our divine origins and exalted status. It is like having two parents, one who underscores our uniqueness and the other our commonness. Which are we to believe?
Much of Western dysfunction can be traced to the tragic choice “between an antiscientific philosophy and an alienating science.” “We are in trouble just now,” observed the late eco-theologian Thomas Berry, “because we do not have a good story. We are between stories.”
Besieged by crises on multiple fronts — ecological, economic, political and moral — we humans struggle at a time of “historic confusion,” to again appropriate Berry’s turn of phrase. Mercifully, like morning fog, that confusion is beginning to lift as humanity embarks upon a third great “Copernican” revolution.
The central challenge facing 21st-century science is understanding the human mind. That science finds itself confronting the question of consciousness comes unexpectedly. First, mind appears to be resolutely immaterial; science can’t poke it with a metaphorical finger as Erin intuited. Second, mind as a domain of inquiry has been off-limits to science since Descartes.
There are in actuality two problems of consciousness: the “easy” problem and the “hard” one. The first concerns how sensory perception correlates with neural activity. Twenty-first century imaging techniques allow modern Magellans — cartographers of the neural realm — to map brain function at a submicron level of resolution. Progress is rapid, and it is virtually certain that the “easy” problem will be fully resolved.
The “hard” problem is altogether something else. In a nutshell: “Sensation is an abstraction, not a replication, of the real world.” How do physical stimuli generate subjective experience? Humans perceive light at a wavelength of 700 nanometers as red; we haven’t a clue why red. The mind is not a tabula rasa, the titan of philosophy Immanuel Kant concluded. Uninterpreted sensory input is useless, “less than a dream,” said Kant. In today’s lingo, uninterpreted sensation is noise devoid of music, pixels devoid of image or caresses devoid of care. Mind and brain are not synonyms.
Lured into the study of consciousness by the Trojan horse of physics — quantum mechanics — science has entered no-man’s land. The quantum (subatomic) world is so bizarre that each of its pioneers felt that he had created a Frankenstein. In disgust at the probabilistic behavior of electrons jumping from one orbital to another, Einstein — a strict determinist — grumbled, “I would rather be a cobbler … than a physicist.”
At the quantum level, the world turns topsy-turvy. Matter looks like Swiss cheese, mostly holes, to Rutherford’s surprise. Worse, matter has an alter ego: energy. Matter, it seems, is congealed energy; energy is liberated matter. Moreover, there is the immensely troubling duality of matter/energy, revealed by “double-slit” experiments with light or electrons. Electrons, for example, manifest sometimes as particles — which are localized in space — and sometimes as waves — which are distributed — but never as both simultaneously. What, then, is an electron when it behaves as a wave? Physicists now concede that an electron’s wavelike nature expresses its tendency to exist when observed. The dissolution of the material world at the hands of science has provoked one respected physicist to quip, “Whatever matter is, it isn’t made of matter.”
Dominating the landscape of quantum mechanics is Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It states that one can never know simultaneously the velocity and position of a quantum object. You can know where it is but not where it’s going, or where it’s going but not where it is. Whatever the experimentalist does to precisely determine the one destroys the determination of the other. On this virtually all physicists agree: The uncertainty principle collapses the Cartesian partition. “The very act of observing,” articulated Heisenberg, “alters the object being observed.” Subject and object interact. Mind and matter are not disjoint, as Descartes presumed. “It would be most satisfactory of all,” envisioned Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli, “if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality.”
Copernicus and Darwin upset the cosmos — physically, then biologically — forcing a schism between scientific and religious worldviews. But a new, holistic and healing story is now emerging through the unfolding of a third “Copernican” revolution. In the new physics, the veil between science and mysticism seems precariously thin, and the universe begins to take on a numinous glow. To hard-boiled positivists, this signals a disastrous turn of events. But for many of us, weary of denying either head or heart, it’s a breath of fresh air. Philosophy — the love of wisdom — may once again become whole.